30 June 2008

Making the Personal/Global Connection

My work puts things into perspective for me. I work for a non-profit, medical humanitarian aid organization that is present in about 60 countries, primarily in the developing world. My work day mostly consists of looking at photos, reports, films, and testimonies from the field, of people who are suffering and coping with medical emergencies. My job is to communicate these stories and our financial needs to the public.

Trapped Somali Populations Need Immediate Life-Saving Assistance
Increases Drastically as Assistance Dwindles

It is not news to anyone that the world is facing a major food crisis. We see it in the prices of food at home. It's getting harder and harder to afford a healthy meal and especially hard for parents with large families to put nutritious food on the table. But when you see this crisis translated into massive nutritional emergencies - the ones that mostly effect children under 5, it makes it difficult to get motivated to write about things like: what I ate and cooked today, the benefits of organic over conventional, and my problems with eating disorders and self-image. It all seems pretty bourgeois and narcissistic. However, I refuse to go into denial mode about either one.

Part of the reason we started this blog was to try to make this very connection between how we choose to consume and how it effects the rest of the world. Since I have been working in the humanitarian aid sector, I look at mass emergencies very differently. I used to see photos of starving children in "Africa" and think it was just something that was always going to be characteristic of that part of the world, and for one person like me to make a difference seemed too out of reach. It was too overwhelming to think about for too long, so it was just easier to write the check, sign the petition, and put it out of my mind. Now I can no longer do that. As a student of public health and policy, I began to understand how our food, environmental, and trade policies that we enact in order to make life even more comfortable and convenient for us westerners, has hurt the developing world and continues to facilitate these critical emergencies.

Part of what I hope to explore in this blog is how we, as individuals, can start becoming more aware of how our lifestyles may be altered to actually make a tangible difference. With regard to consuming, I find that I now ask myself these questions when I make purchasing choices. What am I buying? Do I really need it? Where did it come from? What's in it? Who am I buying it from? How much energy am I using to prepare or use it? Who owns it? What else do they own? Who do they employ? How do they employ? How is that manufactured? Where is that manufactured?

Yesterday I went to Red Hook, Brooklyn, with my friends to visit two super stores, IKEA - semi-disposable, trendy, and very affordable Swedish furniture - and Fairway - a New York based SUPERmarket. IKEA supposedly holds responsible labor standards and most of its manufacturing plants are in Europe and in the US. Although lets face it folks, there was enough wood in those three floors of dorm room furniture to save a whole rain forest. Well, I bought some new beddings and some new drinking glasses, since I am always clumsily breaking mine and refuse to use plastic.

Fairway is a New York institution and I would rather support them over Whole Foods any day. Well, yesterday may have been my last time doing that too.

I swore off Whole Foods several months ago and decided that I would only patronize and support my local farmers at the farmers market, as well as my local mom and pop health food store. I had forgotten how massive these super stores are - mile long aisles of every brand and variety of food your stomach and taste buds could ever desire: organic, imported, fresh baked, white-trash, on-sale, fresh brewed, ready to eat, frozen, raw, locally grown, California grown, hot food bar, salad bar, sandwich bar, cafe, bakery, grass fed, kosher, wild caught, free range, non-hormone, non-fat, full-fat, international, specialty, decaffeinated, enriched, vegetarian, vegan... Good Lord! And this place was absolutely packed on a Sunday. It was a feeding, shopping orgy!!! It was so overwhelming and dizzying that I couldn't shop at all. I left with a pint of New Jersey blueberries and a jar of mixed peppercorns.

Why do we need this many choices? Why do we need so much in just one place? Why do we need "all-you can-eat" buffets? Why do we pride ourselves on getting the "best" this and the "cheapest" that and the "largest portion?" And you wonder why so many of us have eating disorders...

28 June 2008

Day Five: Poor Man's Cooking Aid. Penance through Good Pain.

Summer is my busy season. I'm a deputy sheriff and the sole parent in my home. My number four son is a decent cook and does quite a bit, but I have to do my part. After all, I'm the dad.

It was Stephanie who suggested a slow-cooker for some easy meals. I had an embarrassingly old and flimsy unit, and the new ones are so inexpensive that I coughed up $25 the other day while shopping and took a new Crock Pot home. Yesterday around noon I dropped a whole organic chicken into it (after a little extra plucking) and some carrots. I can't eat potatoes during this phase of my diet, but my kids can so I cut up some golden spuds and tossed them in as well. A little sea salt, ground pepper, and a sprinkling of basil, oregano and sage, and we were in business.

I let the pot go for about six hours while I went back to work. By the time I got home again, the house was filled with happy smells. A quick check with a knife and fork revealed the bird was done. I had my animal protein and carrots with a green salad on the side while the kids made short work of the chicken and potatoes and their own side dishes.

The hormone-free, range chicken was a little more expensive than a standard commercial bird, but the whole meal still came in at about $15 for three people.

* * *

One of our friends in a previous comment mentioned "exercise bulimia." I thought it might be fair to note that even a western man from cowboy country can get caught up in that. When I originally started the first consistent exercise lifestyle in my adult life, I was 270 lbs. and suffering nearly chronic lower back pain. I ran stairs and generally thrashed about without changing my diet too much and managed through sheer hard work to get down to about 240 over the course of a couple of years. People reinforced my efforts by telling me how good I looked. Two things happened: I was so happy with the way I looked and felt that I made a solemn pact with myself that I'd die before I'd go back to being heavy again. Also I'd gotten sort of addicted to the physical high I could get through sustained physical activity after only about 20 or 30 minutes.

Those two attitudes formed the basis for what became a bit of a problem for me.

When I realized I'd plateaued at about 240 lbs, I decided to double my activity time. More is better, right? At this stage I'd bought my own elliptical trainer. And so I spent an hour, six days a week, on the machine. To my joy the pounds just slid off again. And it felt so good. Now I was also becoming diet conscious, although I simply ate a little less crap without taking a hard look at my diet in general. If I had a "bad" moment during which I ate a particularly large amount of cheesecake or had too many donuts, I felt that I could just throw an extra fifteen minutes on my routine and pay penance for my sins. Salvation through good works; the Catholic way. I got all the way down to just above 190 lbs. A few of my friends begin to tell me I didn't look so well and maybe I needed to ease up a bit.

Stephanie identified this behavior of mine. I didn't know what it was. I do now, and I still struggle with it. I've moderated my aerobic time (45-60 minutes, six days a week with some resistance training added), and I'm back up to about 215 lbs. I feel better and just have to keep an eye on my wicked little self. I guess it can happen to anybody.

27 June 2008

4 Days Without Binging.

Okay, so 4 days without binging for me is like getting to base camp of Mt. Everest. I'm a binger. I usually binge every day - when I'm bored, lonely, nervous, sad, or just want to tune the world out- especially when I'm procrastinating before something really important I have to do.

The idea to go on this "diet" with Mark was really a great idea, not because either of us need diets. We hate diets and neither of us are overweight. But both of our eating habits needed cleaning up, primarily for the same reasons - to lead a healthy and responsible life. While my usual diet consists of healthy, organic and locally grown food; in addition to all that, I will eat on a daily basis (sometimes in private): pizza, chocolate, lots of coffee, whatever baked gooey goods are hanging around my office, more bread, ice cream, etc... you get the picture. My weight fluctuates dramatically for someone my size (5"5 and small boned). I can go from 115 to 127 in about a month's time and then drop it back down again the next month. This has been putting stress on my body for decades and while no doctor has said that this was the definitive cause of my heart disease, I know that it has been a factor. I have gone through periods of fasting, using popular juice fasts, enemas, raw foodcleansing, liver cleansing, kidney cleansing - all seemingly innocuous methods of improving my health and well-being. The problem is that any of these methods can be abused and misused by someone like me who has bulimic and anorexic tendencies.

Mark, on the other hand, lives on the typical "Amercan diet." I say that because many people would believe that his diet is not so bad, but I would emphatically disagree. He has gotten used to depending on many processed and "ready to eat" packaged foods that in my opinion, are the devil. I'll let him speak for his own diet, but for the sake of this post, let's just say... he needed to change his evil ways - for his health and his children's.

So here we now are on this lovely, low-glycemic, natural eating plan that is regimented enough for me to stay on, and flexible enough for it to be something that is attractive to Mark. The bulk of this eating plan consists of unrestricted amounts of fresh, local, preferably organic, and seasonal vegetables and fruits. What could be wrong with that? Good for us, good for the planet. In addition, we are eating locally raised, free range and grass fed meats, chicken, fish, eggs, and some dairy products - primarily cultured like yogurt and kefir. I'm not a meat eater so I'm getting my protein from eggs, occasional fish (I like sardines), and tempeh (a fermented soybean cake).

I also enjoy goat and sheep milk yogurt and some cheese. I have to be careful with the cholesterol issue with my heart, although I'm not necessarily convinced that cholesterol is the big risk factor here - but I'll save that for another post. I'm happily off coffee now because it was putting a hole in my stomach. Mark is drinking this amazing organic coffee which is allowed on our plan, so he is happy about that. I'm drinking lots of green tea and it is very delicious and satisfying. All in all, I feel very happy right now. It's amazing how what you put into your body effects your moods so profoundly.

I just want to make sure I dedicate this blog to two of my friends: Thea - who inspired me to clean up my act after she demonstrated this amazing power of discipline and lost 16 lbs over a very healthy period of time by simply cutting out the crap and running her little heart out; and Seth - who inspired me to write about my health and food with his fabulous blog, "FoodVibe," which I highly recommend reading. It's entirely entertaining. Seth and his friends are great writers and they share some great recipes as well.

Enjoying the present moment while moving forward.


26 June 2008

Wilderness Journey: Day Three

I'm back in Utah again, marching out into the harsh future on shaky legs as I continue my forty day diet. Steph and I are coordinating our joint adventures by cell phone and email.

Okay, so "wilderness journey" may be a bit melodramatic for crying out loud. It's a diet out of a book. Still, Rubin (the diet's author) would probably appreciate the reference since "wilderness" in the Judeo-Christian tradition is either literally or figuratively a place in which a great deal of spiritual work gets done. But I wasn't thinking about "spirit" last night, and "God" only came up a few times when I tossed and moaned.

Rubin warns at the outset of the diet that

When you begin phase one and avoid consuming certain foods and chemicals that you were addicted to . . . you may experience temporary withdrawal symptoms such as headache, flu-like symptoms, increased carbohydrate cravings, less energy, mood swings, or even temporary changes in bowel habits.

That's a nice way of describing what's happening to me. Have you ever heard the boiler system in an old building? *Pop, whistle, thunk, groan* Those were my inner sounds last night.

Happily, he goes on to say that this "detox reaction" is short-lived and can be ameliorated with increased hydration and a bit of rest.

The first phase of the diet emphasises greens, good proteins, and healthy oils. No-nos include bread and pasta. When I first gleefully observed to Stephanie that I'd be able to eat butter in phase one, she - with equal glee - immediately fired back, "what are you going to put it on, your hand?"

I blinked.

Shot down. She was so right. For a guy used to a bagel or toast every morning with my coffee, this was bad news. Oh well. No use crying over spilled carbohydrates.

After all kids, it's a wilderness experience.

25 June 2008

Forty Days

A couple of weeks ago, Stephanie bought me a book to encourage me as I struggle to give up my fried-in-fat ways. The book, The Maker's Diet, is another publication in a series in which Jordan Rubin is trying to get people to go back to basics. Without getting caught up in criticisms about the expense of his supplements, his main thesis - that our bodies are made for traditional consumption of unprocessed foods - seems to be common sense. The plan I'm following lasts forty days and is designed to leave the adherent with a livable lifestyle.

And so I'm giving it a try.

Steph leads by example and she prepared our first meal together as she embarks on a similar dietary path.

I'll screw it up if I try to describe all of the good things she put into this attractive and tasty plate, but it filled and nourished us. In adddition to the dark greens and succulent tomatoes, Steph added some protein-rich sardines on the side (packed in water) and some slices of a very tasty sunchoke (also known as the Jerusalem artichoke, an exciting and versatile tuber). Some of the herbal components for this meal came from Steph's garden about which she'll write in the future.

I find it a little strange that many of us who live in the country buy everything we eat in the stores while this city girl tenderly cares for her herb garden and tomato plant outside her window. Each new sprig, bloom, and green fruit is welcomed by her with a great deal of enthusiasm.

And each is destined for a happy plate not too far away.